Geneva Centre for Security Policy – Keynote address by UNRWA Commissioner-General – Press release

Commissioner-General’s Keynote Address
Geneva Centre for Security Policy
4 July 2007

Refugees – the missing link in global and regional security:
Lessons from the Palestinian experience

Thank you, Ambassador, for your kind words of introduction. By inviting me to join you at this graduation ceremony, you have recognized not only UNRWA and me, but also – and more importantly – the Palestine refugees we serve. Thank you very much for giving us this honour.
I must say a word of warm congratulations to each of the proud graduates for completing this course. I do not need to remind you that global security is by definition an unfinished and ever-challenging business for governments and institutions around the world. I am certain that the knowledge and insights you have acquired from GCSP will guide you well in the coming years.
I. Preliminary observations
I would like to begin with two preliminary observations that relate to our theme of ‘refugees as a missing link in global security’ this afternoon. The first is that while the course from which you are graduating is titled "New issues in global security", Palestine refugees are anything but "new". They became refugees when they were compelled to flee their homes to avoid the effects of a major armed conflict in 1948. This makes Palestine refugees the group with the longest record of exile since the Second World War.
The exceptional duration of Palestinian exile is not in itself the point worthy of emphasis. Rather, it is the fact that the conflict which triggered Palestinian flight fifty-nine years ago continues, rendering ever more elusive a just and durable solution to the plight of refugees. The further point to be underlined is that in their state of extended exile, Palestine refugees remain, in a manner of speaking, in "the eye of the storm". Far from enjoying conditions of tranquillity and safety as refugees, they have over the years borne the brunt of recurrent armed conflict in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. Given their frequent encounters with the effects of armed conflict and upheaval, the experience of Palestine refugees resonates with lessons that are immediately relevant to our world.
Another observation relates to the fact that the concept of "lessons learned" is often applied to ex post facto inquiries. We examine and ponder events after they have occurred and the dust has settled, with a view to instructing ourselves on how to avoid mistakes of the past while improving future performance. The Palestinian context does not comfortably fit this bill for the obvious reason that events are still evolving with the gravity and high drama that guarantees various forms of international attention. Given that the Palestinian issue is so current and is the subject of various policy positions and initiatives, I propose to identify some areas where current approaches have fallen short of producing positive results. Rather than refer only to "lessons learned" on an issue that is so alive, I will speak of how the Palestinian saga challenges the value and effectiveness of current approaches. I will focus on two main messages: the importance of human rights to any concept of security; and the limits of the law of armed conflict.
II. Security only in human rights
Palestine refugees remind us that security is composite, indivisible and ultimately dependent on respect for the human rights of all. That every human being is inherently possessed of dignity and worth is inscribed in the United Nations Charter and relevant international instruments. Respecting the rights of individuals and ensuring that those rights are realized and given concrete expression contributes to personal security, which is, in turn, the platform from which people achieve their full potential for social, economic and human development and support the advancement of their communities. The security of a State is therefore the aggregate of the security of individuals within that State. The more safe and protected the people are, the more secure the State is.
Palestine refugees make up a significant part of the population of the occupied Palestinian territory. By virtue of their status as refugees, as protected persons under international law and as human beings, they are entitled to a range of protections under international law. The reality of the Palestinian experience belies these protections to a worrying degree. Let us take a few examples of rights that are observed most faithfully in their breach.
The right to life is called into question by the toll taken on Palestinian lives in inter-factional fighting and the conflict with Israel. The over 10,000 Palestinians – including 116 women and 380 children – reported to be held in Israeli detention raise questions about the extent to which any respect is accorded to the prohibition against arbitrary arrest.
Another human right that is under severe attack in the occupied Palestinian territory is the right of everyone to enjoy a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. You will recall that the first item on the list of Millennium Development Goals is the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, with the specific goal being to halve by the year 2015, the number of people living on less than a dollar a day. In Gaza in particular, these noble goals are being rendered meaningless by abject socio-economic conditions. 66% of Palestinians live in poverty, a 30% increase over 2005. Unemployment has doubled since 1999. In Gaza, 80% of the population rely on UN food aid, while 88% of refugees live below the absolute poverty line.(1)
These dire conditions are largely the result of de facto sanctions imposed by Israel and the international community since early 2006, under which, until recently, donor support to the Palestinian Authority was been suspended, along with customs and tax payments due from the Israeli authorities. It is often overlooked that this money actually belongs to Palestinians and is collected by Israeli authorities on their behalf. A particularly egregious manifestation of the sanctions is that the 165,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority received only half of their salaries in 2006.(2)
The statistics, however, do not tell the full story of human suffering and the daily struggle to cope. The real story is told in people borrowing from others who have little to give, or bartering their meagre possessions as the cash flow dries up. The story is in parents sacrificing their meals and health care for the sake of their children and in children sent off to school without shoes or without the few shekels needed to buy snacks or pencils. We see the impact of sanctions in rising demand for UNRWA’s health, education, relief and emergency services, as those refugees who could previously afford alternative services are compelled by hardship to turn to us. In many cases, refugees have sought assistance for the first time after decades of proud self-reliance. It has to be said that there is sharp irony in the contrast between the universal commitment to poverty eradication, and the decision to impose on Palestinians sanctions that are so severe as to virtually guarantee widespread impoverishment. That irony is not lost on Palestinians.
The occupied West Bank deserves particular mention. A broad spectrum of Palestinian rights are gravely abused on a regular basis by the impact of armed conflict on civilians and by the policies imposed by the occupying power. With some 549 physical obstacles to movement – a 44% increase over last year; a regime of rigidly enforced permits; an increasingly harsh system of cantonization and the massive wall; the right to freedom of movement simply does not exist for Palestinians in the West Bank. Neither does the dignity promised to all human beings by human rights instruments.
A report issued by the World Bank in May this year describes the destruction of Palestinian livelihoods as a result of the barrier and its associated regime.(3) It points out that while physical obstacles are in themselves serious impediments, administrative obstacles are the principal means by which the most harm is done to Palestinian lives. The document provides details of how the occupying power utilizes the Palestinian Population Registry to determine the place of residence of every Palestinian over the age of 16, and to exercise rigid control over their movements. It describes the growth of settlements, including many constructed on private Palestinian land and the increase in the number of settlers, from 126,000 in 1993 to the current levels of almost 250,000. It also makes mention of violence committed by settlers as a "growing concern".
All of these are examples of violations of the rights of Palestine refugees and the rights of Palestinians as persons of concern to international law. It would be remiss of me to fail to mention one other entitlement that is due to the Palestinians as a people. I refer here to the right to self-determination which, as enshrined in the UN Charter and international covenants entitles Palestinians to "freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development".(4) This is the legal underpinning for claims to a "State of Palestine". It is in effect, the ultimate right to which Palestinians aspire particularly because it is seen – not least in the Oslo Accords framework – as a prerequisite for resolving the protracted exile of Palestine refugees. The fact that the realization of this right continues to elude Palestinians is a reason for immense frustration. It is the source of a perpetual sense of dispossession and injustice that is felt among many Palestinians as well as throughout the region – a sense which serves as ready justification for militancy.
I have described the environment of serious rights violations in which Palestinians live in order to underscore the message that the Palestinian experience contributes to our understanding of security. There are two aspects to this message. The first is that an environment steeped in serious rights violations cannot be reconciled with the concept of security. In a situation where the entitlements of large sections of a population are flagrantly breached, neither the violators nor the violated can feel secure. State security is not a sufficient argument for justifying human rights violations. And no State that habitually violates human rights can possibly feel secure. By the same token, no State can achieve true security in isolation. On the contrary, the security of every State is organically bound to the safety and protection of people within and around it.
The second aspect is that whatever UNRWA and other agencies may achieve through humanitarian assistance can only be part of the whole; it will not by itself fill the human security vacuum and it does not absolve political actors from their responsibility to address critical economic and political questions. Humanitarian and human development interventions are concrete and sustainable only when they are complemented by political action to resolve conflict.
III. The limits of restraint in armed conflict
Since the current intifada began in the year 2000, the occupied Palestinian territory has been the scene of perpetual armed conflict between Israel and Palestinian armed groups. The Parliamentary elections in early 2006 added an internal dimension to this battlefield. In both its internal and external aspects, the conflict fluctuates in intensity, with periods of relative calm interspersed with ferocious battles. Regardless of the levels of intensity reached in this simultaneously internal and international conflict, civilian lives have borne the impact to a degree that is gravely concerning.
It is sad to note that in conducting their internal conflict in Gaza in recent weeks, Palestinian factions have not taken particular care to spare civilian lives. By one account, 146 Palestinian lives were lost, of whom 36 were civilians, including 5 children and 8 women.(5)
When we consider the toll taken on Palestinian lives by armed conflict, it is difficult to avoid raising questions about the efficacy of the protections offered under international humanitarian law.
As I understand it, international law provides a range of protection for civilian lives, livelihood and property in situations of armed conflict as well as under occupation. These protections should normally follow from adherence to certain well-known principles whose origins include ancient notions of honour, gallantry, chivalry and valour. Combatants should exercise restraint in the conduct of armed conflict and in the choice of means for prosecuting conflict. They must ensure that the effects of warfare are confined as far as possible to those conducting hostilities and that civilians and noncombatants are spared. In making judgments on proportionality and military necessity, combatants are expected to give priority to avoiding death or injury to civilians, non-combatants and their property.
The experience in the occupied Palestinian territory is an assault on international humanitarian law and the principles underlying it. Neither side seems able to acknowledge that considerations of humanity must be placed on a par with security and military aims. All sides are so emotively consumed with the rightness of their cause that they are incapable of exercising restraint on the battlefield and unable to make objective judgments on those vital questions on which the efficacy of humanitarian law rests, namely, necessity, proportionality, and moderation in the choice of military means. internal conflicts elsewhere,
In light of these serious concerns, the Palestinian experience presents us with a challenge to define more rigidly, and publicize more widely, the means and methods of warfare that should be permissible in the occupied Palestinian territory.
If we bear in mind that Gaza and the West Bank are among the most densely populated areas in the world, the question may be asked as to whether it is legitimate to deploy in these places artillery and other imprecise weaponry of large caliber. Is it time, perhaps, for an express prohibition on the use of such weapons in the context of the occupied territory? A strong argument in favour of such a move would be that in the specific circumstances of Gaza and the West Bank, the use of imprecise weapons of large caliber cannot be reconciled with principles of proportionality and respect for civilian lives. I recognize that immense political and legal obstacles would have to be overcome if such a prohibition were to stand any chance of seeing the light of day. Nevertheless, the potential benefit in terms of lives saved makes this challenge worth accepting.
IV. Conclusion: the role of international actors
I have touched on two of the many lessons of the Palestinian experience. I have indicated that the situation in Gaza and the West Bank is instructive on the fact that respect for the human rights of all lies at the heart of any meaningful concept of security for both Israelis and Palestinians. I have also suggested that the scale of civilian casualties in the occupied Palestinian territory points to a grave crisis of compliance with the rules of international humanitarian law and that this calls for some bold new thinking on how the protection of civilians can be made more effective.
In closing, I would like to mention one more message that the situation of Palestine refugees powerfully conveys to the international community and particularly to States who are its leading actors. The conflict in the occupied Palestinian territory is one of the most serious tests posed to regional and global security. It constitutes an anomaly in a world in which there is universal agreement on promoting human rights, justice, and economic opportunity for all, and on constraining the conduct of war within humane limits. These high ideals should become the essence of our approach to the issues raised by this conflict. International actors should base their decisions and actions on highest ideals of humanity as enshrined in international law. They should place these high ideals on an equal plane with military, security and political considerations, and be guided by them in working with all sides to achieve a just and lasting solution to the plight of refugees. Until the day that a just solution enables Palestinians to feel safe and protected, neither Palestinians nor Israelis will attain the peace they crave.
Allow me to now conclude with a quote which neatly encapsulates the messages and reminders that radiate from the situation of Palestine refugees. The quote is taken from an advance draft of the Report of the High Level Fact Finding Mission established by the Security Council to investigate last year’s events in Beit Hanoun.(6) As many of you will recall, the mission, which was led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, produced its report despite being refused entry into the Gaza Strip. In its penultimate paragraph, the Mission had this to say:
"We will not find safety or security in isolation or exclusion. Our individual security and freedom are inextricably linked to our respect for each other. Our experience has shown that security does not come from the barrel of a gun. It comes when we recognize and respect the human rights of all."
This is the main security policy lesson demonstrated by the Palestine refugee experience, one that I hope you take with you as you return home to make significant security policy contributions to your countries and institutions.

(1) PCBS
(2) World Bank, March 07
(3) “Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank: Uncertainty and Inefficiency in the Palestinian Economy,
(4) Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966
(5) Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 18 June 2007
(6) Advance Unedited Version, dated 12 June, 2007


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